by Karl Kurtz
In our work on NCSL's Trust for Representative Democracy, from time to time we receive comments or questions about our use of the term "representative democracy." Two recent ones include: "Since we are a constitutional republic, is there a reason why the term representative democracy is being used instead of constitutional republic?" "We are not a 'Democracy' we are a Democratic Republic." These comments often point out that nowhere in the Constitution does the word "democracy" appear.
The answer is that we regard the terms “republic” and “representative democracy” as being interchangeable, as does the political science literature. They are a form of democracy distinct from another form known as direct democracy. A number of years ago I coauthored a college textbook with professors Alan Rosenthal, Burdett Loomis and John Hibbing, Republic on Trial: The Case for Representative Democracy. Here is what we said in the first paragraph of that book:
After the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked what kind of government the framers had produced. “A republic if you can keep it,” he replied. The American republic is synonymous with representative democracy, the political system through which citizens govern themselves. Representative democracy is democratic in that the people have the power to choose those who govern; it is representative in that the people themselves do not govern but leave governance to the agents they elect. The engines of representative democracy are Congress at the national level and legislatures at the state level, with the executive and judicial branches playing important supporting roles.
The fact is that neither republic nor representative democracy is ideal from the standpoint of marketing or promoting public understanding. Both of them draw blank stares when presented to focus groups of young people (or adults, for that matter). "Republic" is not at all well understood. About the only time it is used in popular communication is in the formulaic recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. And "representative democracy" is a nine-syllable mouthful so unfamiliar that many people have difficulty pronouncing it. I have cringed as trained actors stumble over these words in rehearsals.
To get around some of these problems, we often use the terms "American republic" or "American democracy" to suggest that we in the United States have evolved our own particular kind of governance--one in which the people have the ultimate authority but they exercise it through their elected represenatatives. But these terms require explanation, too.
If we were corporate marketers, maybe we would go the Xerox or Exxon route and simply invent a new one or two syllable word with memorable spelling for our system of government. "Amgovv" anyone? On second thought, forget it.
Let's live with what we've got--republic or representative democracy, whichever you prefer--and do our best to help people understand the virtues, values and flaws of our governmental system.